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Fall 2004
In Their Own Words
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The First Oral Historian

THE BEGINNING of oral history as an academic movement is wrongly credited to Allan Nevins, who founded Columbia University’s oral-history office in 1948. Two years earlier, in 1946, a psychology professor from Chicago named David Boder lugged 60 pounds of primitive recording equipment, including 200 spools of carbon steel wire and an assortment of converters and transformers, to postwar Europe to interview displaced persons in France, Switzerland, Italy and Germany, many of whom were survivors of Nazi concentration camps.

James Mink, UCLA's Oral History Program, with Allan Nevins, Columbia University

Photograph courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA

James Mink '46, M.A. '49 (standing), director of UCLA's Oral History Program from 1964-'72, in undated photograph with Allan Nevins of Columbia University

It was the first methodical application of recording to oral history, and the idea was so new that Boder had no name for it. When he returned with 109 recorded interviews totaling 120 hours, he called his recordings “the world’s first spoken literature.” Sadly for Boder — who borrowed from his life insurance to finance the expedition and who suffered a serious heart attack the week his first book of interviews was published — the world did not take notice. The book quickly went out of print. Boder’s health deteriorated, and his doctor advised him to move to a warmer climate. In 1952, he retired from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and became a research associate in the psychology department at UCLA.

In welcoming Boder, UCLA shares with IIT the distinction of having been the first to support a recorded oral-history project. In many ways Boder’s project was the perfect application of oral history. There were at the time few written descriptions of daily life and events in the concentration camps. There were as yet few diaries from the survivors, who had been free for only a year and had spent much of that time recovering from starvation and disease. There was not even a name for what would later be called the Holocaust. Only Boder attempted to fill the postwar void. His interviews are the only extensive testimonials collected from survivors so soon after the war. As such, they are perhaps the most important historical sources about the Holocaust.

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